While my current gig is serving as the President of a product development company, I’ve spent many years in companies large and small developing products as a mechanical engineer and also in engineering management. In those pre-consulting roles, I often was the person responsible for finding, engaging and managing product development partners (see my earlier post on choosing a product development partner.) In fact, my experiences as an engineering management executive inside a large product company were the basis for starting IPS, our own consulting firm. What better way to build a business than to know the gaps in the available services from first hand experience?
As a service provider, and a former service buyer, I’d like to share some wisdom on how to maximize your probability of getting what you want and expect from your product development partner. These tips are logical for execution-oriented projects. However I would also argue that even research-oriented projects (where the results may be uncertain or evolving) need some boundaries which allow both the client and service provider to have definitions of success.
Here are the 5 keys to satisfaction when engaging a product development partner:
Create clear requirements
This should be obvious, but it is missed by many. Any time you engage with a product development consulting firm, it is crucial to be able to clearly and unambiguously define the goals of the engagement. Yes, there are engagements that are more open-ended and research oriented. However, even in those it is critical to establish parameters for expectations. At IPS, we often are called into meetings with clients where the product development requirements are very loosely defined. In such situations, we encourage clients to engage with us to go through a brief and inexpensive phase to gather requirements as a baseline – a discovery phase we call the “Productization Plan”. With clearly defined requirements, a buyer is in a position to seek competitive proposals knowing that they are more likely to get apples-to-apples responses for even comparison.
Require a clear and thorough definition of all deliverables
This is another important step. As a buyer of services, it was not at all uncommon to see proposals with very loosely defined deliverables. Having these clearly defined and a common understanding of the contents of the deliverables is not just a measure to satisfy procurement teams. As a buyer, you need this in order to understand how your services partner will manifest their results. Will those results be as thorough as you expect? Misalignment in this area is a big factor in dissatisfaction for the buyer and the service provider as it causes debates over the quality of the deliverables.
Have clear expectations established defining acceptance criteria for deliverables
Alignment over acceptance criteria is another area where misalignment is common. Are the quality expectations well understood by both sides? When someone says they are delivering “sketches” are you thinking rough, hand drawn documents or are you thinking nicely rendered or computer generated images? When you talk about proof-of-concept models, are you talking about prototypes that demonstrate or simulate the functional properties without regard for aesthetics or are you thinking functional prototypes with appealing aesthetics. Misalignment here causes huge disparities in terms of cost and time – and lots of dissatisfaction on both sides. Reach agreement up front as to what the service provider must demonstrate in order for work to be accepted.
Get a clear definition of the word “complete”
It is pretty common to break larger programs into phases. Often, final phase payments are contingent on the work in the phase being “complete.” Both the buyer and the service provider must have a common definition. A final review going over all deliverables followed by acceptance is often helpful for consensus on completion of a phase. From a service provider’s viewpoint, this is the point at which they can safely provide a final phase invoice. From a client standpoint, the review summarizes the phase and provides confidence that all the commitments have been satisfied.
Hold your service provider accountable
If you have provided for the four items above, then you want to hold your service partner accountable for meeting their commitments. With clear definition of requirements and acceptance criteria, you have a rationale upon which to accept or reject the work of your product development partner. However, if the requirements are ill defined or subject to uncontrolled changes, it is hard to hold your service provide accountable.
The biggest issue for anyone as a purchaser of professional services is a misunderstanding of what you expect vs. what your service provider committed to provide. It should be no surprise that for any reputable service provider, misaligned expectations with the client are a source of immense stress, cost and even difficulty in resolving payment. This is particularly critical in new engagements between a client and service provider. A long established relationship is like a good marriage. After a series of projects, one may not need to express everything explicitly for implied requirements to be known. In new relationships, it is often the unexpressed expectations that lead to dissatisfaction. It is in everyone’s best interest, especially in first engagements, to do as much as possible clearly and completely articulate expectations before starting the project.